The joy of philosophical discussion and pessimism

Philosophy has always been important to me. By philosophy I do not necessarily mean a body of knowledge, though that is inevitably picked up to some degree on the way. I mean instead asking questions: questions that resist an easy answer; questions that open up problems rather than close them down; questions that make you think. But above all, and increasingly so over the years, I value asking questions and discussing ideas with a group friends. It was a joy, therefore, when the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group met, in person, this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic. We’ve been meeting every month virtually through this strange time, but this has been nowhere near the same experience. So, seeing as our last on-line meeting discussed ‘Joy as an act of resistance’, we started our physical meetings off with a discussion of ‘Pessimism’.

Philosophical pessimism is generally regarded as a direct challenge to what John Gray (in Straw Dogs) terms humanism – that is, the belief in progress, the belief that “by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals”. Put another way, philosophical pessimism challenges the optimistic assumption that the future will be kind to us. Such an assumption is manifest in a blind belief in market led solutions, that if we allow economic markets to work in an unrestricted manner the invisible hand will work its magic to the benefit of all. It is also manifest in a blind belief in technological solutions to our climate crisis, an area where we witness many examples of what Roger Scrutton calls the ‘best-case fallacy’. This is where people adopt an uncritical attitude towards the best case scenario of any problem and believe that it will come about.

The future of human survival, let alone human well-being, faces many challenges: global pandemics, growing and deepening inequality, economic collapse, a resurgent religious fundamentalism, post-truth. But without doubt the biggest of these is a rapidly changing climate. Following innumerable severe weather events around the world which most scientists attribute to the rise of mean global temperatures, his last week saw one report in which scientists warn that greenhouse gas levels are already too high “for a manageable future for humanity.” Yet despite these warnings sufficient numbers of politicians grasp hold of some version of the ‘best-case fallacy’. They have faith, for example, that ‘carbon capture and storage’ will provide a technological solution to the critically high levels of carbon in our atmosphere – even though the technology has not been fully developed, let alone proven to work. Others have faith that hydrogen will be able to replace fossil fuels to power our privately owned transport obsessions. And all the time we hold onto this faith we do not consider other options. These technologies may prove effective. But they may not. In other words, optimism may lead to our demise, whereas pessimism would probably lead us to the best outcomes in the long-term – providing, of course, that it doesn’t drain us of the will to live.

So why do so many of us grasp hold of an uncritical optimism? Well one way of approaching such a question is through our use of narrative and through the links between pessimism and the absurd. For proponents of existentialism the absurd represents an intrinsic paradox to human existence: that humans have a deep need for meaning and purpose to their lives, but when sufficiently examined no such meaning and purpose can be found to exist. What humans tend to do, however, is to tell themselves and others stories. These stories are a mix of adopted, often religious myths that explain the place and future of a person’s tribe, nation or religion on this planet, and a personal narrative that assigns a place for the narrator within this grand-narrative. These narratives come complete with the usual mix of heroes, villains and victims. Within the grand-narratives these roles are often abstract, often assigned to other communities, social groups or religions, though occasionally an actual person can become the embodiment of a hero or villain (I’m thinking Donald Trump). Within our personal narratives these roles are assigned to the people we know. With regards to optimism, the key point is that we all tend to prefer stories with a happy ending.

There are, though, exceptions to our liking of happy endings. I’m thinking particularly of how many people enjoy a Shakespearean Tragedy, which usually ends with the death of the hero and most other characters. And many of us enjoy ambiguous endings to a film or drama series – though usually in the hope of a sequel that will resolve all the plot lines. But with regards to both our grand-narratives and personal stories perhaps we need to take a lesson from science. Complexity science, the science of dynamic systems (which we are all examples of), has shown that there is an inherent uncertainty to life. So why not start writing this uncertainty into our narratives, why not start embracing uncertainty rather than writing it out of the script. Rather than anticipate a happy ending (optimism), rather than anticipate a tragic ending (pessimism), why not treat life as a piece of improvised theatre in which the ending is uncertain? Why not develop our character through the performance of our lives fully accepting that the closing scenes have yet to be written?

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